Jesuit Mission USF history

History of the Sciences: Science and Technology Come to San Francisco

The two-car steam train, belching thick black smoke and generating deafening noise, rumbled up Market Street in San Francisco and deposited a handful of young men a few feet from the front door of St. Ignatius College. On Wednesday, July 4, 1860, the first urban steam train on the Pacific Coast made its inaugural run from the corner of Third and Market Streets, down to Valencia Street, ending at 16th Street. It was dirty and loud, but this train must have been music to the ears of Antonio Maraschi, S.J., founding president of what is now the University of San Francisco. In 1855, Fr. Maraschi had built his school in the “wilderness” of towering sand dunes along an undeveloped cow path, and some people thought that the Jesuit priest had taken leave of his senses to build a school and church in such a remote part of the city. But Fr. Maraschi believed that Market Street was “certain to be the main artery of a fine city. Here we will build,” he said, “and wait.”

During the first two years of the city’s railway, it was not an especially scenic or comfortable train trip to St. Ignatius College on Market Street, and many students continued to hike over sand dunes to school. Often the train had to stop while the crew got out and shoveled sand off the tracks. During heavy rains, many of the rail cuts in the street filled with water, and as one railroad official said about disembarking train passengers, “many worthy citizens narrowly escaped drowning.” By 1863, however, when the first science classes began at St. Ignatius College, Market Street was well on its way to becoming the commercial center of San Francisco, in large measure because of the railway that ran down its center. The students of St. Ignatius College witnessed the results of science wedded to technology at their school’s front door. These students learned about steam-powered engines in their science classes, and they and their teachers explained and demonstrated the scientific principles behind steam engine technology to their fellow citizens in public lectures.

Original Market Street steam train 1860 to 1867

The original Market Street steam train ran from 1860 to 1867, when it was replaced by rail cars drawn by horses. In 1883, the horse cars were converted to United Railroads cable cars, with a cable car slot running down the middle of the street. By 1900, cable cars were bringing passengers down Market Street to the Ferry Building every 15 minutes during rush hour. The 1906 earthquake and fire, a violent labor strike in 1907, company corruption, and poor service put an end to the United Railroads cable cars along Market Street, and they were replaced in 1912 by the Municipal Railway (Muni) streetcar system.

Transcontinental Railroad to SF ad
The transcontinental railroad was completed in May 1869, “through to San Francisco,” as this poster advertised. A few months after it was completed, Joseph Bayma, S.J., the great European scientist and mathematician, traveled on the transcontinental railroad to assume his position as the fifth president of St. Ignatius College. His students were soon explaining and demonstrating the scientific principles underpinning the steam-powered locomotive to the citizens of San Francisco.

With the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, one of the most significant technological developments of the 19th century became national in scope. Thousands of immigrants from Europe could journey rapidly from the East Coast to San Francisco. The population of San Francisco increased dramatically, from 149,473 people in the 1870 national census to 233,959 in 1880, 44.6 percent of whom were foreign born. In 1880, San Francisco was the ninth-largest city in the United States, but was first in the nation, even ahead of New York City, in the percentage of its population that was foreign born. Among those European immigrants to San Francisco was the prominent mathematician and scientist Joseph Bayma, S.J., the fifth president of St. Ignatius College. Fr. Bayma traveled from New York to San Francisco (via steam riverboat from Sacramento) during the first year of the transcontinental railroad. He reported that the train trip “lasted seven days only and has been delightful.” Although “no food was to be had in the trains,” he noted, “we stopped three times a day for twenty minutes, and could take a good breakfast, dinner, and supper, at convenient times.”

The railroad was not the only new technology that transformed San Francisco and affected the students and faculty members of St. Ignatius College. The electric telegraph, first exhibited in the United States by Samuel Morse in 1837 at the College of the City of New York, was extended to San Francisco in 1861 by Western Union. It arrived in time to inform the citizens of San Francisco of events during the Civil War, and carried news to San Francisco of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865. Several days later, the telegraph reported that 7 million people had lined the railroad tracks in the East to view the president’s funeral train as it proceeded slowly from the nation’s capital to Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois. Three thousand miles away in San Francisco, the Jesuits of St. Ignatius Church, located on Market Street, draped their church and residence in mourning black and helped organize and participate in a public funeral procession down Market Street that included St. Ignatius College faculty, students, and many citizens of San Francisco. Over the following years, St. Ignatius College students studied the science behind the new technology of the electric telegraph. In 1876, at the Eleventh Industrial Exhibition of the Mechanics’ Institute in San Francisco, Joseph Neri, S.J., professor of natural sciences at St. Ignatius College, along with his students, demonstrated “all the telegraphic and signaling instruments from the Electric Construction Company of the city, besides many minor pieces and improvements made in the college laboratories.

Telegraph Hill during the Civil War

Telegraph Hill, as it appeared during the Civil War, was the terminus for the telegraph signals sent by line from New York and other Eastern cities. Telegraph Hill also served as an observation point during the war, hence the “telescope” building seen in this photo. Coit Tower is now perched on top of Telegraph Hill.

The Bachelor of Science curriculum, as outlined in the 1872−1873 St. Ignatius College Catalogue, included chemistry, logic and metaphysics, geometry, trigonometry, conic sections and surveying, and “treatises of the first year of natural philosophy.” The term “natural philosophy” derives from the Latin philosophia naturalis, and refers to the classic study of nature and the physical universe before the development of specialized sciences during the 19th century. Natural philosophy was the antecedent of the natural sciences, including physics, chemistry, astronomy, and geology. The term appears in the titles of such major works of natural science as Sir Isaac Newton’s 1687 classic The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, and Lord Kelvin and Peter Guthrie Tait’s 1867 publication Treatise on Natural Philosophy, a work that helped define modern physics. Consistent with this change of nomenclature, the St. Ignatius College curriculum of 1879 included subjects such as physics, geology, and mineralogy in lieu of natural philosophy. Public lectures by the students of St. Ignatius College are also indicative of the school’s science curriculum in the years following the American Civil War. On February 9, 1871, the San Francisco Call, a major newspaper of the era, reported on a series of public experiments performed by students at St. Ignatius College to a large audience. These included:

  • Electrolysis and projection by the electric arc light
  • Properties of oxygen—combustion of coal, steel, phosphorous
  • Properties of hydrogen—combustibility, lightness, explosiveness
  • Full rigged balloon for aerial navigation
  • Reunion of hydrogen and oxygen—water from fire
  • Singing flames—musical sounds in the formation of water from its elements
  • Chemical tests of solutes, projected
    Oxyhydrogen blowpipe—melting and burning of brass, iron, steel

The public science demonstrations by St. Ignatius College students reflected the widely held view during the 19th century that science and technology were closely intertwined, if not indistinguishable. Science was often seen as a practical activity rather than a theoretical abstraction, and the distinction between science and technology was largely irrelevant. The steam engine and the telegraph were examples of the dynamic relationship between science and technology. The steam engine was regarded as a vehicle for economic progress, and the electronic telegraph as a practical means for long-distance communication. Joseph Bayma, S.J., president of St. Ignatius College from 1869 to 1873, belonged to the Royal Society of London, an organization of distinguished scientists that promoted science’s utility for society. The science faculty and students of St. Ignatius College shared the view that science should be applied to real-world problems. During the 20th century, however, some writers and members of the scientific community began to make sharp distinctions between theoretical science and applied research, between pure science and technology. Today, the distinction between science and applied technology is again diminishing as scientists grapple with current issues, such as global warming and alternative energy sources that inherently fuse the two fields. The practical use of science to solve human problems echoes the perspective of the 19th century that saw science and technology as one. At today’s University of San Francisco, science and technology are closely linked, and science continues to be applied to real-world problems—an orientation that never left this Jesuit school.


The first steam train in San Francisco is described in "To Class Via Train" in the USF Alumnus, October–November, 1960, page 11, and in "150th Anniversary of First Market St. Rail Line," by Carl Nolte, in the San Francisco Chronicle, July 4, 2010. The history of the transcontinental railroad is portrayed in Nothing Like It in the World, by Stephen Ambrose. The relationship between science and technology during the 19th century is outlined in Making Modern Science: A Historical Survey, by Peter Bowler and Iwan Morus (pages 391-414). The public science demonstrations by St. Ignatius College students during the 1870s are highlighted in "Chemistry at the University of San Francisco," 1863–1906, by Mel Gorman, in the Journal of Chemical Education, Vol. 41, November, 1964 (page 628), and in the Report of the Eleventh Industrial Exhibition of the Mechanics’ Institute of San Francisco, furnished by Taryn Edwards, at the Mechanics’ Institute of San Francisco. The St. Ignatius College Catalogues were furnished by Michael Kotlanger, S.J., USF’s archivist.

Alan Ziajka, Ph.D.
Associate Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and University Historian